In some ways the AX-5 represents a distillation of Ayre’s ‘purist’ philosophies, as it employs both the company’s ‘Diamond output circuit’ and the elaborately-designed volume control trickled down from its flagship KX-R Twenty preamplifier.

In the fully-balanced zero loop feedback AX-5 integrated, Ayre eliminated the preamp stage altogether and simply made the gain of the power amplifier directly adjustable using VGT (Variable Gain Transimpedance). The volume knob on the right of the fascia acts as an encoder to control a pair of motor-driven Shallco silver-contact rotary switches (one for each channel, conjoined using toothed belts), each of which contains dozens of hand-selected, low-noise resistors.

Volume level can be adjusted over a range of 69dB in 46 steps of 1.5dB (steps which we did find a bit coarse). A single resistor mounted in a terminal block governs the AX-5’s overall gain range and can easily be changed should the need arise, to accommodate overly-sensitive or insensitive partnering loudspeakers.

While it works flawlessly, the amplifier’s elaborate stepper motor system results in a ‘clunk’ each time the volume is adjusted. We soon came to ignore it.

Befitting its price the AX-5’s sculpted aluminium chassis is reassuringly robust and beautifully finished. It sports a large and easy-to-read status display while microprocessor control allows its six line inputs (four balanced, two single-ended) to be individually enabled and custom-named to match source components.

Naturally the AX-5’s front panel display can be dimmed or disabled via the handset. However, some enthusiasts might bemoan the absence of a balance control, phase inversion or a mono switch. And if your cables have 4mm banana plugs note that the amplifier’s Cardas binding posts are designed for spade connectors.

Wonderful detail

From the outset we were struck by its refreshingly clear and open sound. Despite appearing luscious and smooth in tonality, easy-going and warmly-balanced, the sound was still incredibly detailed.

It proved wonderful at peeling away the layers of heavily multi-tracked rock albums, the AX-5 bringing out low-level details in exhilarating fashion. We were captivated listening to Beneath The Waves by Kompendium [96kHz/24-bit DVD-A; 7 Stones/Tigermoth], the amplifier providing a sparklingly clean window through which to observe individual elements of the music’s arrangements and myriad production effects. Percussion details were beautifully rendered and natural-sounding, while further down the frequency scale the intense vocals of Steve Balsamo were particularly well projected beyond the plane of our monitors.

Henley’s Building The Perfect Beast album came next – Mo-Fi’s ‘Ultradisc II’ remaster [UDCD 705]. This contains a busy assemblage of electric percussion bouncing between the channels to make up its joyous beat, the song soon deteriorating into a cacophony if not kept in check by a ‘sympathetic’ replay system. The AX-5 didn’t fully pull its punches to conceal the recording’s shortcomings, but we were left convinced of the Ayre’s transparency as a consequence.

Meanwhile it proved adept at serving up infectious rhythms, delivered with a beguiling musical fluidity and a fine sense of ‘body’ and definition to instruments. Bass lines were fast and detailed, the midrange well projected and enticingly warm while its treble was free of grain or splashiness.

Thanks to the amplifier’s supreme clarity, stereo imaging was exceptional when auditioning audiophile-quality recordings containing realistic spatial elements, with outstanding inner detailing. Moreover the AX-5’s neutral honesty rendered brass in an appropriately aggressive manner – as, for example, in Stravinsky’s Rite Of Spring with Maazel [Telarc].

Verdict

The AX-5 is a lovely amplifier to use thanks to its large display, customisable input naming and illuminated handset. It delivers fabulous detail and musical insights and really is a class act.

Originally published in the 2014 Yearbook